Method acting is when actors immerse themselves fully, emotionally and physically, in a role. Behind-the-scenes stories about method actors reveal that many have stayed in character off-camera as well. Like when Tom Hanks decided not to bathe for weeks to look the part in Castaway. Or when Nicolas Cage had his teeth pulled out, minus anesthesia, to feel the pain his Vietnam vet character endured in the movie Birdy.
Those who have worked closely with method actors on a film set offer different reactions to their character-focused colleagues, ranging from awe to puzzlement. Stories that reveal what directors and co-stars say about method actors, and what it's like to work with them, might surprise you.
- Photo: The Dark Knight / Warner Bros. Pictures1805 VOTES
The late Heath Ledger was fully committed to playing Joker against Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight. Bale, in author Joseph McCabe's book 100 Things Batman Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, described the actor's intensity during the first scene they filmed together:
Batman starts beating the Joker and realizes that this is not your ordinary foe. Because the more I beat him the more he enjoys it. The more I’m giving him satisfaction. Heath was behaving in a very similar fashion. He was kinda egging me on. I was saying, “You know what, I really don’t need to actually hit you. It’s going to look just as good if I don’t.” And he’s going, “Go on. Go on. Go on...” He was slamming himself around, and there were tiled walls inside of that set which was cracked and dented from him hurling himself into them. His commitment was total.
- Photo: Netflix2677 VOTES
In Netflix's 2022 series, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Niecy Nash portrayed Glenda Cleveland, a real-life person who faced off against the titular serial killer. In the series, Nash's Cleveland is really an amalgamation of two people, Pamela Bass, Dahmer's neighbor, and Glenda Cleveland, who lived nearby and was highly suspicious of Dahmer's behavior.
During a press event, Nash was asked what it was like to work alongside Peters. She admitted that she never really got to know the actor, because he was so committed to his dark persona:
People would say, "What is Evan like?" And I would say, "I don’t know! I don’t know the man." Because in his process, I respected his need to keep the distance and the tension so that it played out on screen. Because I’m coming in, initially, like "Hey! How you doin’? Good morning!" and he’s like, "No, ma’am." And I was like, oh, he’s in his process and I want to keep him there.
I prayed for him a lot because this was weighty. When you’re tethered to the material like bone to marrow, your soul is troubled at some point. I could see him getting tired. I just said, "I’m just going to make sure I keep him in my prayers." Because this is a lot and he wants to do it justice.
- Photo: Elvis / Warner Bros. Pictures
In January 2023, Austin Butler won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Elvis in the Baz Luhrmann biopic. The internet had a field day poking fun at Butler's acceptance speech, which was delivered in his distinctive Elvis accent. Twitter users joked that Butler was either possessed by the ghost of Elvis or seemed to have adopted the southern twang permanently.
But according to Butler's Elvis voice coach, Irene Bartlett, that might just be the way the actor talks now:
What you saw in that Golden Globes speech, that’s him. It’s genuine, it’s not put on. [...] I feel sorry people are saying that, you know, it’s still acting [but] he’s actually taken [the voice of Presley] on board.
Butler spent two years preparing to play the King of Rock and Roll, and Bartlett said the COVID shutdown meant the actor was working on his accent "all the time." In fact, she added, it's possible the accent will “be there forever.”
- Photo: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood / Sony Pictures Releasing
In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks plays the beloved Fred Rogers, AKA Mister Rogers from the children's show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. However, the movie focuses on Matthew Rhys’ character, Lloyd Vogel, an Esquire journalist who has to interview Rogers.
Rhys was impressed that Hanks could channel Rogers without trying to copy him exactly:
He [Hanks] really captured something. He was so shrewd in what he did. He got the incredible essence of Fred, without impersonation... But there's just this one moment where he does the walk, and he did this thing with his hand. Having watched a lot of Fred, I was like, "He just did that thing that Fred used to do with his hand." So without being too obvious he nods to the physicality. It's just enough. But I think the essence of Fred he caught beautifully.
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
In Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank is Maggie, an amateur boxer trained by Frankie, played by Clint Eastwood, who also directed the film.
Eastwood said he was impressed with how Swank channeled her own personality into playing Maggie:
She came out of very poor beginnings and wanted to be an actress, so she understood this girl completely. She's a very determined person. She worked incessantly, training four hours a day for four months and we got her very muscular and about 18 pounds heavier. She became that person.
- Photo: Columbia Pictures5383 VOTES
When Jodie Foster was cast as an underage sex worker in Taxi Driver, she was only 12. Because she had worked with Martin Scorsese before, in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, she assumed things were going to be the same.
But they weren’t, not with a “socially awkward” Robert De Niro, who stayed in character when he took Foster out to various diners. Foster recalled:
After the first time, I was completely bored. Robert was pretty socially awkward then and was pretty much in character, which was his process. I think I rolled my eyes at times because he really was awkward. But in those few outings, he really helped me understand improvisation and building a character in a way that was almost nonverbal.
- Photo: United Artists6322 VOTES
Marlon Brando introduced method acting in Hollywood. To prepare for his role in the 1950 movie The Men as a paralyzed vet in a wheelchair, Brando stayed at a VA hospital in Van Nuys, CA, where he mingled with wounded veterans.
When he later appeared in the 1976 Western The Missouri Breaks with Jack Nicholson, another method actor, the latter said he felt out of his element with Brando. Nicholson recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone:
I watched some of Brando’s dailies, nine or 10 takes of this same scene. Each take was an art film in itself. I sat there stunned by the variety, the depth, the amount of silent articulation of what a scene meant. The next day I woke up completely destroyed. The full catastrophe of it hit me overnight.
The director had to nurse Nicholson back to artistic health for the movie to continue.